“On All Fours” made me feel sick. It took me a night of dreaming to realize a little more. Freud, who was at once brilliant, frequently wrong and very intent on being seen, heard and famous, made much of Oedipus Rex, which literally translates as “hurt foot king.”
Freud is not the father of psychology so much as the father of modern literature, and Lena Dunham is nothing if not a superb writer. In Sophocles the riddle of the Sphinx is about what walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon and three at evening. Oedipus realizes it is man, who crawls, walks and then uses a can in later life.
Repetition compulsion is about unconsciously reenacting our tragedies, but the deep point is our hope to undo, to transcend, to heal. Our prison dread is also our wish to be free; our abandonment drama is also our wish to be found and loved.
In “On All Fours” Adam, an odd and darkly awkward man who has finally shown a winning streak of normalcy in wooing the lovely daughter of a fellow AA member, falls hard, fast and darkly from his brief taste of grace.
Adam goes to an engagement party with Nat (Natalia). Dis-engaged is Adam’s comfort zone position, yet he’s lovingly connecting with Nat when he sees his ex, Hannah, who is coming from the ER after the removal of a Q-tip from her ear. The symbolism is rife: she is pained by OCD, but also by the need to get something out of her (splinters, angst, dread, loneliness and the wretched cacophony of our current culture); Hannah is anxious, but she is also quite alone.
Adam and Hannah had a disturbed relationship, and together or apart they are mirrors of each other. Adam goes back to the party and relapses. At first it leads to wild dancing, but we know it is a tragic dance.
He takes Nat to his apartment, and she witnesses the depressing, dirty and weird inner world that is Adam. He is possessed by the dark impulse of shame and cruelty and he literally compels her to crawl on the floor. She is a good girl and a good sport, but then he brutally fucks her like an animal and climaxes on her breasts as she says, “Please don’t do that.” This may or may not cross into rape, but it is most certainly the murder of love.
In the surreal moment where Adam comes back to reality to see all hope of love dying before his eyes he acknowledges that he “didn’t know what came over him” and his abashed smile mingles little boy bad with darkness and hopeless shame.
A psychological take on this scene and situation might be that Adam’s primitive terror of annihilation was triggered by the possibility of love. If our core dread is lack of control and abandonment leading to feelings of annihilation, we are triggered into rage (an animal instinct, not a moral position) and we misperceive those who might love us for those who might hurt us.
At once we take control by hurting and annihilating the threat, and we defend against being left for no reason by creating the reason. Once we are alone, we become terrified and begin to fantasize intrusive persecution (i.e. where Hannah is at the moment—writing a book in a wish to be seen, and fearing she will fail and not be seen, but rather be revealed as an unlovable failure). We wobble between dread of too much overwhelming closeness and the dread of too much aloneness.
In showing us the dread of abject failure, loserdom and pathos Lena Dunham holds the mirror to our narcissistic time and we love it, because it is us. Once we undertand that we all actually do love us, in all our pathetic need and tragic terror, we will calm down and get together in a less prize-winning, magazine-selling, attention-grabbing manner. After all, it’s not Integrity Fair or Authenticity Fair but rather Vanity Fair that still sets the tune and tone for our macabre karaoke of look-at-me despair and alienation.
If we are truly seen by anybody perhaps we will feel loved and not need to be seen by everybody. Perhaps, each in our own way, we are all working on this.
Besides an animal enactment, Adam’s need to ejaculate on Nat’s breasts suggests that he was overtaken by his generation’s curse: porn. Porn is not about sex; Nat is game for sex for pleasure and connection. Porn is about turning humans into objects, which are then productized and monetized. Porn exploits the brain and kills what the man could be.
Adam’s “money shot” is also primitive magic: he puts his potential to co-create life onto her potential to nourish life, but while even brutal intercourse keeps the magic in the cave of the woman, which could lead to a new beginning for someone, porn-sex leads to a sad end, plain and painful for everyone to see.
As we grow conscious, choice emerges: the choice to be kind, to help each other feel seen in beauty, but also seen in shame, fear and isolation, in rage and terror and destructive primitive baby-like behaviors and feelings.
Who would poison and blow up the world? Smart people? Certainly not wise people. Adam is a pathetic victim. The real perpetrators are those who know better and don’t do better.
Lena Dunham makes art. I’m a psychologist. But I think we both want to heal ourselves and others, to be able to keep it real, have actual friends, actual relationships, actual love, enough money but not more than that, enough attention but not more than that, enough safety to transcend our lonely situations and enjoy our collective one.
Collectively and individually when we are scared we are on all fours. But perhaps we don’t all have to get up and soldier on, perhaps we all need to drop down and rescue the animal which is us by calming the savage beast which is the baby, within and between us all, not yet properly loved.
In drama there must be conflict; in therapy (and parenting) we must navigate conflict and stress, but we need not manufacture it. Our cure is not going to come from smart ideas, our bad behavior comes when the animal is scared and confused. Paradise was life amongst the animals; the fall is divorce from the animals.
Lena Dunham is a poet, she knows the language of our animal. Her work rings emotionally true, it is compelling and interesting, it evokes love and pathos. What higher praise for art?
In the prior episode Hannah’s OCD first flares up and she goes to a therapist. My son, Will, asked me, “Is he a good therapist?”
Love is a good therapist.